A world of contradictions

BERLIN – Germany, like the world, is full of contradictions. Most of Germany has suffered under a long heat wave and damaging drought. Now thunderstorms are predicted, with water, lots of it. I wonder if any parallels or omens can be induced.

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

They had not yet hit as Daniel Barenboim, who has headed the Berlin State Opera for 23 years, conducted his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for an audience of 15,000 in the outdoor Waldbühne stadium. This group has more than 100 members, aged 14-25, about equal numbers of Israeli-Jewish and Arab musicians, also a few from Spain since the group, formed in Weimar in 1999 by Barenboim with the late Arab-American professor Edward Said, moved to Seville in Andalusia, where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived peacefully together from 711 until 1492. The orchestra’s name derives from a collection of poems by Goethe inspired by the Persian poet Hafiz. Despite bitter wars and conflicts since its formation, the young musicians have stuck together and enjoyed great success from Salzburg to Carnegie Hall, from Barenboim’s birthplace, Buenos Aires, to London’s Royal Albert Hall, and most interestingly in Rabat and Palestinian Ramallah.

Not yet in Israel, however, where some hard feelings remain since Barenboim played a brief encore from Tristan and Isolde, spiting an Israeli taboo against all music by the anti-Semitic Wagner. Perhaps more relevant was his 2004 statement to the Knesset when receiving a prize: “Today, deeply troubled, I wonder whether the occupation and control of another people can be reconciled with Israel’s Declaration of Independence. How must one judge the independence of one people when its price is a blow against the fundamental rights of another people?” Barenboim presented his $50,000 prize to music schools for Israeli and Palestinian children. (In Ramallah a young girl thanked him for bringing the first Israelis she had ever seen who came not with tanks and bullets but with flutes and violins.) It was hardly accidental that the Berlin program included both Beethoven, a German, and Tchaikovsky, a Russian.

Anti-Nazi rock festival

Balancing a welcome for Barenboim’s anti-racist orchestra in Berlin, there was a very different event in Jamel, a tiny village 150 miles to the north. It’s a pretty place with only ten homes – but Nazis live in seven of them and are in control, with a road sign pointing to Hitler’s Austrian birthplace, with celebrations of his birthday, and with a grill oven built to recall Auschwitz. Whoever objects is pressured to leave. But Birgit and Horst Lohmeyer, who moved here in 2004 – she a writer, he a musician – defied warnings and threats and turned what began as an enlarged house party into an annual anti-Nazi rock festival at their big barn, always a success despite the snarling neighbors. On the night of August 12th, the barn was set on fire and burned to the ground. Arson was evident.

But the Lohmeyers did not give up. In two weeks the festival will be held as planned, with the best rock, ska, Latino, Turkish and other anti-fascist musicians from the entire region and beyond. Again barring a thunderstorm the festival will be outdoors, with certain rules seen as necessary during the concerts: no pets, no alcohol, no weapons and no right-wing extremists.

Most hated politician

Despite new proof that he, too, can snarl, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble remains for Germans the second most popular politician, outpointed only by “Mutti” (Mommy) Merkel. The nationalist media has done its job! I know of no polls, but guess that in much of Europe he is moving ahead as most hated politician; those images of a benign modern Germany have not fared well after its vicious treatment of Greece and its lasting “austerity” pressures. Although Germany has reacted better than many neighbors in accepting the desperate crowds seeking asylum after dangerous, often deadly voyages in tiny, unfit vessels, there have been many heartless reactions as well, with the issue more divisive by the week as right-wing forces fill Molotov cocktail bottles (see Jamel) or figuratively sharpen their political teeth.

Greece, Turkey, Spain, Britain

But good omens should not go unnoticed, like the vote for Syriza in Greece and the eloquent, resounding vote for “OXI” – “No” in the referendum. The Schäuble forces succeeded in blocking progress and humanity and may succeed in their aim of splitting Syriza as a warning to others. It is all too possible that Erdogan in Turkey will also achieve his aim of wrecking the new unity between progressive Turks and progressive Kurdish-Turks, which upset his hopes of dictatorship in the last election – hopes obviously behind his attacks in Syria, not against ISIS but against the Kurds. Yet it may well prove impossible to copy North Korea and set all clocks back (there by only 30 minutes). In Spain the advance of popular movements like Podemos may be slowed in the coming elections, but policies like those of the two female mayors in Madrid and Barcelona – like tearing down all Franco monuments and street signs or stopping further evictions – cannot easily be erased.

Events in Britain are also dramatic. The Labour Party, once militantly based on workers’ unity, limped into almost total irrelevance when Tony Blair sold out to George Bush and the London City. There, and generally in Europe since 1989 and earlier, genuine left-wing opposition seemed fully lamed while Cameron rode high everywhere but in Scotland. Now, apparently out of the blue, Jeremy Corbyn, 66, a bearded vegetarian Member of Parliament from North London, seems almost sure to get elected as the party’s new leader next month by mail-in vote. He attracts big audiences and lifts ever more hearts by demanding real changes: back to government ownership of energy plants and rail transportation, a return to free college education, affordable housing, no more Trident missile submarines. This surge of enthusiasm, Corbynmania, like its sour treatment in the media, resembles amazingly the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Oh yes, the Blair types are whining! Tony himself said: “If your heart’s with Jeremy Corbyn get a transplant.” They are almost literally shaking in their costly boots, even considering a coup if he wins.

Germany’s Social Democrats

Germany’s Social Democratic Party has seen no such upsurge. Its leader, Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, scolds lamely about the unapologetic, almost total check of German communications by the NSA in the USA, wobbles back and forth but supports the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, a clone of the Pacific TIP), goes along with Schäuble’s treatment of Greece, and no longer rails at huge German arms shipments to warriors in the Near East, from the UAE and Qatar to Turkey, tanks for the bloody regime in Saudi Arabia or atomic submarines for Netanyahu. And then it wonders why there are so many refugees. Its poll results stagnate around 25 percent, with 40-45 percent for Merkel’s party, and about 10-11 percent for the Greens. The LINKE (Left) party, at 9-10 percent, often alone in the Bundestag in sharply opposing such positions, has not been able to move past its internal problems and organize strong resistance in the streets and squares, campuses or factories. Its push to control rents and speed affordable public housing is commendable but has yet to produce any thunderbolts.

And yet we do see stirrings. At Amazon, with about 10,000 employees in Germany, there has been a long fight, with longer or shorter strikes at different sites, to win the same wage rates as other workers in retail and wholesale trade. Amazon has refused to negotiate for two years and has tried, with varying success, to set one group against the other. One wonderful note: Polish workers of Amazon, who get even lower wages and worse conditions, noting that some workdays were up to 12 hours, soon realized that they were being used as scabs against German workers. The message spread; slowdown at work or call in ill. And the Christmas rush is approaching.

Even more dramatically, 30,000 resolute women (and some men) who work in public kindergartens and nursing homes, went on strike last May for seventeen days, demanding a 10 percent raise reflecting the responsible, highly-trained work they do. They went back to work after entrusting union mediators to negotiate with the communal employers, who always complain of lack of funding. But when a deal of only 2-4½ percent was reached, about seventy percent angrily rejected it and sent the union back to win more. Or else! If the communities could get federal aid to care properly for the asylum-seekers they could then better afford properly-paid care for their children. And fewer tanks and warplanes with expensive maneuvers in Poland or Estonia could well make such federal aid possible!

Yes, anger is slowly increasing in Germany – at lousy, part-time, underpaid jobs for far too many and at rapid urban gentrification. This may result, here too, in growing militancy. But there is also that menacing trend to blame all problems on “the foreigners,” especially the large numbers arriving from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan – where German weapons have been blasting – or from Africa, where cheaper German goods have helped wreak economic havoc.

Are storms ahead? And if there is lightning will it be the kind that liberates after long stretches of drought – or the kind that sets concert barns and refugee hostels on fire?

Photo: The Barenboim-Said Foundation


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.